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Becoming a Novelist: 7 Keys to Success

Happy person demonstrating novel writing success.

I can tell you the best way of becoming a novelist – a successful novelist – in two words: Get Obsessed!

I almost wrote “Get Motivated,” but that wasn’t right. For one thing, you’re probably highly motivated already. That’s why you figured on becoming a novelist in the first place, right?

You don’t decide to do something as monumental as writing a novel on impulse. You’ve most likely been thinking about it (or actually writing novels) for years. So why would you need someone to tell you how to get excited about novel writing when you’re already buzzing?!

Second, motivation isn’t enough – not by itself.

Sure, it’s great for getting you started. And it’s great for keeping you going when the road is still smooth.

But what happens when you hit the first bump in the road, then another one right around the corner? Motivation alone can fade fast when things turn tough.

So the aim of this article is to help you take the motivation you already have and multiply it by ten… ideally to the point of obsession!

Why? Because if you’re obsessed about becoming a novelist, there’s no bump in the road big enough to stop you.

Don’t get me wrong, writing and publishing fiction is about as good as it gets. But I don’t want to sprinkle you with fairy dust here and claim that it won’t get tough at times. It will. But that’s what makes it worthwhile, right?

Here’s how Flaubert put it…

Writing is a dog’s life, but the only life worth living.

Dorothy Parker said something similar…

I hate writing, I love having written.

A tad extreme? For sure. Talking about a “dog’s life” and about “hating” writing is more appropriate for a tortured artist than someone who just happens to enjoy writing novels.

That said, it’s probably true that most working novelists today love to “have written” and understand that the act of writing itself is just the bumpy track they must travel to get there.

And that’s why you need something stronger than “mere” motivation to keep you going when you’re having a bad day…

  • when the words aren’t flowing and every line you write sounds lifeless
  • when the plot has become all tangled up and you just can’t unpick it.

If you’re only half-committed to becoming a novelist, you’ll quit at the first sign of trouble. That’s why so many novels are abandoned after a couple of chapters and shoved in the back of a drawer, never to be see daylight again. If you’re obsessed, there’s nothing to stop you!

How do you get obsessed about being a novel writer?

The buzz of excitement that you already feel is a great start. To take that excitement to the next level, you need to understand that you do have what it takes to become a successful novelist. I’ll say that again for the folks at the back…

You DO have what it takes to succeed!

Don’t believe me? Then check out my 7 keys to success. As you read each one, you’ll see that you have all the credentials you need to make a living as a novel writer.

1. Becoming a Novelist Takes a Little Raw Talent

Most published novel writers have got where they have through some talent and a lot of hard work and determination. They didn’t get there because they were geniuses living life on a higher plain than the rest of us.

Novel writing is not some highbrow art reserved for the intellectual elite (despite what the literary snobs may think). Instead, it’s something that any reasonably intelligent and creative person can succeed in.

Don’t believe me? Here’s the novelist Stephen King on the subject…

Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.

And here’s a similar thought from the novelist John Irving

I wouldn’t say I have a talent that’s special. It strikes me that I have an unusual kind of stamina.

Hard work and stamina – those qualities are crucial if you want to become a novelist.

Of course, some raw talent is essential. But here’s why I’m convinced that you do have what it takes…

First, you are interested in writing. In other words, writing a novel would never have occurred to you without a love of reading, a vivid imagination, a natural curiosity about this world we call home, and a desire to express yourself creatively.

Instead, you would have been drawn to cookery or music or painting – or something for which you did have a natural aptitude.

Second, you have plenty to say. Nobody has ever seen the world through your eyes before, meaning you can’t help but be unique and interesting. So long as you shoot from the heart.

And, yes, that still applies if you believe that you’ve lived the most boring and uneventful life imaginable (heck, pretty much everyone feels that way!)

If you dream of becoming a professional musician or a world-class golfer, an extraordinary level of talent probably is essential. But unlike playing the violin or hitting little white balls, using language and telling stories is something that everybody has done from an early age.

Taking this natural skill one step further by becoming a novelist is simply a logical extension of something we all do on a day to day basis, without even thinking about it.

Which isn’t to say that everything you write will be solid gold. You still need to learn your craft and practice, practice, practice.

It just means that you should have faith in yourself – faith that, with knowledge and practice, your natural storytelling talent will lose its raw edge and allow you to write publishable, professional novels.

Still don’t believe me? Read this…

They were on Charles Street. The rain was so fine that Ezra hadn’t bothered to turn on his windshield wipers, and the glass began to film over. Jenny peered ahead. “Can you see?” she asked Ezra.

That’s a brief extract from Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler, one of the most successful novelists of the last 50 years.

Is there anything in that extract that you think is beyond you? Do you read it and think, “Geez, I could never write anything as good as that!”

Of course not. They’re simple words that any one of us could write (if not on the first draft, then certainly after a couple of revisions).

The point is that novel writing is only as hard as you want to make it. If fancy-sounding prose is your thing, great, go for it. But simple prose can often be just as engaging. And guess what? Everybody is capable of writing simple, unadorned prose.

So writing the actual words won’t be a problem for you. As for all the other things like constructing a plot and creating characters that readers love – that’s just a question of learning your craft.

2. Becoming a Novelist Takes Originality

Raymond Carver: A writer who has some special way of looking at things, and who gives artistic expression to that way of looking: that writer may be around for some time.

Originality consists of how a novelist writes (the words they use, the way they construct their sentences). And it consists of what they write about (their subject matter, the issues they explore in their fiction).

Is everyone original? Potentially, yes. Like I said above, the only person who has ever seen the world through your eyes is you. Nobody has ever…

  • been through precisely the same experiences
  • thought precisely the same thoughts
  • felt precisely the same emotions.

So if you use a novel to provide readers with a vision of how the world looks through your eyes, you can’t help but be original!

The most important word in that last sentence is “if.”

When you write about something – anything – it’s easy to resort to the commonplace, the clichéd, the accepted wisdom. In other words, you give the reader a vision not of what the world looks like to you, but of what everyone else says the world looks like.

If you describe a tree blowing in the wind, for example, describe what the tree looks like to you (or more precisely, your imaginary character – who is a part of you, anyway).

Do not describe what trees blowing in the wind have looked like to a thousand writers before you. Readers want original, interesting voices, not “me too” writing.

Raymond Carver, the great American short story writer, summed it up like this…

Every great or even every very good writer makes the world over according to his own specifications. It is his world and no other. This is one of the things that distinguishes one writer from another. Not talent. There’s plenty of that around.

In other words, just be yourself. It’s okay to be inspired by other novels and other novelists. But don’t set out to be the “next [insert your favorite novelist here].” Set out to be the one and only you!

3. You Need a Love of Reading

It doesn’t matter what kind of novels you read. If you prefer Anne Rice to Jane Austen, or John Grisham to Dostoevsky, good for you. (Always read the books you love, not the books you think you should love.)

And it doesn’t matter if you give up reading while you’re writing your novel, because many writers do. Like Alice Hoffman, for example…

When I’m writing, I’m not reading. And I’m writing a lot of the time. It’s horrible to admit.

But as she said in another interview, there’s a solid reason behind it…

I don’t really read as much as I used to. A lot of what I was looking for as an escape I find in writing. And the other thing is that I don’t want to get into someone else’s language when I’m working.

The “reading while writing” issue is up to you. If you don’t find it distracting, great – keep reading. If you do, you can look forward to catching up with your favorite authors when you take a break from novel writing.

Hey, even novelists need vacations!

All that matters is that you have loved reading novels at some point in your life.

Most novelists were avid readers as children, but don’t worry if you didn’t come to appreciate fiction until later in life. So long as you appreciate it now and have a hankering to see your own fiction in print, you’ll be fine.

Why is a love of reading so important?

Because reading novels teaches you so much, particularly now that you’ve decided to become a novelist yourself and will therefore read fiction with a more analytical eye.

It teaches you the craft. It tunes your ear to the “art” beneath the surface. And it teaches you about the rules, or conventions, of your chosen genre. (These are the elements that your novel should, or should not, contain in order to satisfy the readers of that category of fiction.)

Plus, a love of fiction means you’re passionate about it. And without that, you can hardly be passionate about writing it.

4. Becoming a Novelist Takes Craftsmanship (and a Little Artistry)

Kind of learning the rules of novel writing isn’t enough. You need to become a master of your craft (or at least something in that ballpark), just like every successful novelist has.

Don’t worry, though – the rules are pretty simple once you’ve boiled them down. (Or once I’ve boiled them down for you!)

In today’s competitive world, having a vague knowledge of the theory of novel writing probably isn’t going to cut it…

Yes, you might get lucky. But mastering your craft (or something close) places you head and shoulders above the bulk of the competition. And it’s so much easier to succeed from that position.

Back in the old days, before it was possible to manage your own career online, the majority of writers were turned down by agents and publishers, often for committing one of the fundamental novel writing mistakes…

  • Weak characterization.
  • A plot full of holes.
  • Clunky dialogue.
  • Lifeless writing.
  • And so on.

Today, agents and publishers continue to reject the majority of submissions for the same reasons.

And if you go down the self-publishing route (cutting out those agents and publishers), you’ll face “rejection” from an equally important group of people: your readers. (They’ll let you know what they think in online reviews.)

So learn your trade!

It isn’t that most novel writers don’t have some knowledge of the art and craft of fiction writing. It’s that their knowledge simply isn’t broad and deep enough to succeed.

When they first decided to become a novelist, they probably bought a basic guide to how to write fiction, skimmed through it, and believed they were suddenly masters of their craft.

But they weren’t. Not even close.

You don’t become a doctor or a lawyer or a master carpenter by reading a bargain-bin book on the subject. So why should it be any different for novelists?

The good news, of course, is that you’ll learn everything you need to learn about writing right here!

What About Learning the Art?

That’s a tricky one. Most people claim that art cannot be taught, and I’d agree to an extent. Art is “absorbed” more than “learned,” and the way you absorb it is through reading great novels like the one you want to write.

I think it’s also true, though, that art and craft go hand in hand. And that a weakness in one area will lead to a weakness in the other.

Here’s my take on it…

It’s the art in a novel that makes the novel remarkable. But craft gives the art space to breathe.

Craft without art is mechanical and lifeless (like the novel was created by software). Art without craft remains hidden behind impenetrable prose and confusing plots.

Good novelists care deeply about their craft, always. And then, through skill and sweat and a soul alive to the terrors and wonders of this funny old world we call home, they learn to make art.

5. Becoming a Novelist Takes Imagination and Curiosity

Novels are essentially the product of a writer’s imagination, so a vivid imagination is essential for success.

How do you know if you have a great imagination or not? Here are some of the tell-tale signs. You…

  • often catch yourself daydreaming
  • had imaginary friends as a child
  • like to replay scenes in your mind, not as they actually happened but as they could have happened.

If any of these “symptoms” apply to you, you doubtless have a fine imagination and will become a great novel writer. (If not, it’s never too late to start reconnecting with your inner child.)

As well as a vivid imagination, you also need a strong curiosity…

Novelists are students of life itself, meaning that everything that happens to you and around you every single day is potential subject matter for a book.

So you need to be observant, interested, curious.

No, you don’t need to be curious about everything. If your fiction revolves around cyber crime, you don’t need to spend your days staring at wild flowers in the woods. But you do need to get obsessed about your chosen interests.

More than that, you need to recapture that innocent curiosity you had as a child and learn to see familiar things as if looking at them for the very first time.

Do that and you won’t just improve your chances of becoming a successful novel writer. You’ll improve your whole life. Here’s Raymond Carver again…

At the risk of appearing foolish, a writer sometimes needs to be able to just stand and gape at this or that thing – a sunset or an old shoe – in absolute and simple amazement.

6. You Need a Compelling Reason to Write

Isaac Asimov: I write for the same reason I breathe - because if I didn't, I would die.

There’s nothing wrong whatsoever with writing for money. And the good news is that making a living as a novel writer is easier today than it’s ever been.

How so? Because of the internet…

  • The internet not only allows novel writers to publish their own fiction, if they choose (eliminating the need to get accepted by an agent and publisher).
  • It also gives novelists all the tools they need to promote their fiction. And that’s crucial whether you get published traditionally or go down the self-publishing route.

But writing for money is not a compelling reason to write – not by itself.

Why not? Because you only get paid after your novel is published. Before that can happen, you face months, possibly years, of learning your craft and grinding out the words.

In the meantime, it’s the other, non-financial rewards of novel writing that will keep you going – because they are things you can benefit from today.

Thinking of the money you’ll make at the end of the process is fine, but it’s a relatively long-term reward.

Without a short-term reward, too – something you can enjoy right here and right now – there won’t be any job satisfaction. And without that, being a novel writer will be a temporary thing that you ditch as soon as something better comes along. So ask yourself this…

Why do you want to become a novelist?

That’s an important question to answer. And it’s important that it’s your answer.

Maybe you already have a reason to write that isn’t related to making a living. You don’t? Then think about it…

If I convinced you beyond any reasonable doubt that you will never make a living being a novelist, would you keep doing it regardless? If so, why?

Answer that and you’ll have all the motivation you need to turn up at your desk every day.

Just for fun – and hopefully to inspire you a little – here’s a brief glimpse into the minds of some famous novel writers, together with some of my own reasons for writing…

i) The Challenge of Novel Writing

For Hemingway, the difficulty is the thing…

Writing is something you can never do as well as it can be done. It is a perpetual challenge and it is more difficult than anything else that I have ever done – so I do it. And it makes me happy when I do it well.

While it’s certainly true that the rewards of taking something difficult and doing it well are huge, I don’t think it’s especially motivating to focus on the difficulty. Listening to George Orwell, for example, is enough to make you want to forget about becoming a novelist immediately…

Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.

I prefer Vita Sackville-West’s view…

It is necessary to write, if the days are not to slip emptily by.

But I guess the reality for most novel writers lies somewhere in between.

The difficulty of writing matters. With something simple, like boiling an egg, there’s little payback – you just get a boiled egg. But writing a novel is not boiling-an-egg easy. Consequently, the payback is so much more than “merely” a finished novel.

You also get an incredible sense of accomplishment and the satisfaction that comes with it. And you don’t just experience these things at the end of the process, when you’ve completed your novel. You experience them at every step you take along the way.

Nevertheless, the fact still stands…

In order to experience that satisfaction, you have to do the hard work that takes you there. And focusing too much on that can actually be de-motivational – so much so that you may not even show up to work.

So for me, I prefer to find motivation in the pleasure, not the pain.

ii) The Pleasure of Novel Writing

For Stephen King, being a novelist is about…

Enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well.

Which is why I talked about “job satisfaction” above. If you love what you do on a daily basis, even if you have to squeeze it in between the day job, you will indeed enrich your life.

For me, the pleasure of novel writing is more specific than that. It’s about making the world over according to your own designs.

Let’s face it, we’re all more or less insignificant in this world, however much we try to kid ourselves otherwise. We’re powerless in the larger scheme of things. And society as a whole really doesn’t care what we think and feel.

Life sucks like that!

But having a creative outlet is one way to put that right. When we write a novel, it allows us to create a personal universe according to our own specifications. And then to play at being “God” in that universe.

For some people, their garden is their creative outlet, or their way of rebuilding their tiny corner of this planet to their own design. They may be invisible in the grander scheme of things, but within the confines of their four garden walls they are omnipotent.

Others express themselves through painting or music. For them, their canvasses and their musical instruments are their gardens.

We write novels. We build entire worlds using nothing but words and the power of our imaginations – and what we say in those worlds goes. And that’s kind of cool!

iii) Creating an Alternative Reality

For Anne Tyler, the motive is leading a separate life…

I write because I want more than one life; I insist on a wider selection. It’s greed, plain and simple. When my characters join the circus, I’m joining the circus.

The novelist Alice Hoffman agrees…

That’s the great thing about fiction: You get to live all these different lives that aren’t yours. It’s almost like being an actor, where you put on all these different roles and become other people. It’s not me, it’s not my life, but I get to kind of experience it.

I talked about “playing God” above. The motive here isn’t so much about masterminding the fictional world you’ve created as being a part of it.

I can relate to that a lot. What’s not to love about becoming another person for a few hours?

As you’ll discover in the section on creating characters, there should be a part of yourself in all of your fictional characters. Or to put it another way, all of your characters should be facets of yourself.

When you write a novel about a murderer, for example, you need to draw on that part of yourself which, under extreme circumstances, would be capable of taking a life. And, yes, it exists in us all.

We actually contain every human trait imaginable if we search deeply enough…

  • There’s a part of us that’s the life and soul of a party and an opposing part that hates parties and makes us wish we’d stayed home.
  • There’s a part that is fearless and another part that is cowardly. (The two traits play off each other, meaning you are neither as brave as you would like to think nor as cowardly as you fear.)

In the real world, we rarely get to explore the extremes of our personalities. We’d all like to play the brave hero, but the circumstances in which a hero is required rarely crop up. Even when they do, we all have that inner coward holding us back.

About the only time we truly get to play the hero is in our daydreams. And becoming a novelist is really a glorified form of daydreaming for a living.

When we create fictional characters and put them into invented situations, we get to act in any way we choose. We can be more romantic, more witty, more loveable, more anything than we ever quite manage to be in our real lives.

The flip side is that we also get to be more villainous. We can cheat, steal, lie, say terrible things. And that’s kind of fun, too!

iv) Being a Novelist is Cathartic

Alice Hoffman points out that, for some, the motive for writing fiction isn’t so much about creating alternative realities as better understanding the reality you already have…

Fiction writers are writing either to write about their lives, or they’re writing to create a different reality.

I’d argue that most novelists do a little bit of both. Their books are inevitably based on their own experiences (if not literally then on an emotional level). But instead of writing about those experiences directly, they do it through made-up characters living in made-up worlds.

Nevertheless, “writing about your life” in order to make better sense of it can be hugely cathartic…

They say it’s good to get your problems out in the open. And let’s face it, even those of us who consider ourselves happy-go-lucky kind of people still have our fair share of fears, anxieties, demons, neuroses and all the rest of it.

We’re all trying to figure out what it means to be alive in this funny old world and what it takes to get by in it.

One solution is to talk and to share. Talking and sharing are good.

Another solution is to become a novelist. Seriously. If you stop to think about it, novels are like “test laboratories” for human behavior…

  • Take Character X.
  • Put them in Situation Y.
  • Depending on how the character acts, you come up with Result Z.

Let’s say you have a fear of the dark. Give your novel’s hero this fear, and put them into situations which test the fear, and I guarantee you’ll find that the process helps you and heals you. Not least if you figure out a way for the character to overcome, or at least manage, their fear.

I don’t want to make the process sound as mechanical as I have. The truth is that a lot of novel writing takes place at a subconscious level, anyway.

The important thing is to take the initial decision to confront your fears or doubts or shortcomings (or whatever) head-on. Then, in the natural course of writing your novel, you can’t help but work through your problems.

And here’s the best part…

Not only will you find it a truly cathartic experience to write the novel. Your audience will find the process of reading the novel cathartic, too.

7. Becoming a Novel Writer Takes Hard Work

Sorry, but writing a novel to a publishable standard takes work, patience and a determination to keep going when you hit obstacles (particularly when you’re just starting out and still finding your feet).

I like how James Scott Bell puts it in How to Make a Living as a Writer

If things aren’t working out as fast as you want them to, don’t give up. Figure out what you can be doing differently, and then try that. It may mean writing a different kind of book. Or it may mean writing the same kind of book even better.

The need to work at it, and keep working at it, is one of those inconvenient truths that many newcomers to novel writing ignore (which is why they never actually finish anything). What they maybe don’t realize is this…

  • Writing a novel might be challenging but it really isn’t as difficult as everyone thinks. Not once you’ve learned the “rules” of how to write a novel.
  • Work that is challenging is also hugely rewarding. Unlike “easy” work which isn’t rewarding in the least.
  • Hard work can also be fun. Especially if you manage to focus on today’s work only and not get stressed out about how long it will take to reach your destination.

Incidentally, if you ever feel like abandoning your dream of becoming a novelist, remind yourself that every novel writer struggles. Like Barbara Kingsolver, for example…

Beginning a book is really hard. I’m trying to begin one now and I just keep throwing stuff away and thinking, ‘Can I do this? I don’t think I’m smart enough.’ But it has to be hard. You have to have a reverence for the undertaking.

Writing fiction is challenging. And a challenge, by its very nature, is not going to be met without lots of energy from you.

So you need to promise yourself, right here and right now, to see this through, no matter what it takes to get there. Or if you feel that it’s beyond you to become a novelist, go find another challenge in life.

Whatever you choose (novel writing or something else entirely), give it everything you’ve got.

Rise to the challenge!

And understand that the future is ultimately in your hands. It’s like the British novelist Nick Hornby said…

I always presumed that I would be a writer, without actually doing any writing. I think I thought I was going to get a phone call from somebody one day saying they had a vacancy for a novelist. When I realised that this wasn’t going to happen I thought it was about time to do something.

Wrapping Up

And that’s it – your seven keys to novel writing success.

Feeling pretty good about yourself right now? Excellent! Keep that obsession burning and becoming a novelist will be so much easier.

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